In the heart of Georgian Tunbridge Wells, the collective has refurbished the 19th century Corn Exchange building to create antiques shops in the premises renamed The Pantiles Arcade.
Decorative arts specialist Eric Knowles (now a dealer) is leading the venture and a clutch of BADA and LAPADA dealers have joined the group hosted in a Grade II-listed building.
Already trading alongside Knowles is Jeroen Markies Art Deco, David Hickmet’s Hickmet Fine Arts, chandelier manufacturer and glass restorer Wilkinson, vintage toy dealer Pete Redman and established Tunbridge Wells silver dealer Pamela Goodwin.
Soon to join them are horologist Richard Price and 20th century design specialist Mark Hill, followed by a Hatton Garden jeweller, while Derbyshire auction house Hansons is in negotiations regarding an opportunity at the arcade.
The range on offer includes ceramics, glass, furniture, contemporary art, silver, numismatics, toys and Tunbridge ware, with items priced from £50-50,000.
The business is the creation of Knowles along with his business partner Robert Woodmansey and his partner Germaine Knowles.
Businessman and collector-turned-dealer Woodmansey set up antique glass specialist website ScottishAntiques.com and merged with Knowles’ company The Hoard.
Woodmansey said: “When I visited fairs such as Masterpiece and the BADA and LAPADA fairs I wanted to create something like that here in Tunbridge Wells. Of course we can’t replicate these fairs exactly but we can make it as beautiful as possible. We have the best in breed of dealers and the people that visit will know they are buying from quality dealers.
“This is still a work in progress but we are proud of what we have done.”
The dealers already on board agree. Markies and son Jacob have relocated their shop from nearby East Sussex village Forest Row into the arcade and love being part of a larger group of dealers.
Woodmansey and Knowles are also hoping to make the wider area of the spa town a destination for antiques once again.
Tunbridge Wells once had many antiques shops but the number has dwindled over the years.
However, after conversations with fair organiser Donny Mann at Love Fairs, The Pantiles Antiques Festival, hosting 50 stalls, took place on two weekends along the historic colonnaded Pantiles and will return next year with two planned each summer.
It is not just events in front of the arcade that have been under way. A series of talks and lectures also take place inside.
Among the lectures (or “infotainment” as Knowles describes them) have been Knowles on Lalique and Art Deco, Andy McConnell on 5000 years of drinking glasses and Richard Price on carriage clocks.
Events coming up are A Romp with the Georgians with David Harper on November 4-5 and Curved Coloured and Cool on Post War art glass by Mark Hill on November 25-26. The ticket price includes wine and canapes.
Knowles describes the venture as an “emporium dedicated to the decorative arts, not just a shop but a venue”.
But renovating this historic building has not been easy.
Woodmansey relocated from Scotland to the south around four years ago and began looking for premises in the Spa town.
After teaming up, Knowles and Woodmansey discovered the availability of the Corn Exchange and were able to agree a deal with landlord The Marquis of Abergavenny. Although the building was far larger than they had planned to take on, they decided to proceed.
“The size of this was an order of magnitude more than we needed so it was extremely daunting. If it wasn’t for the support of the marquis this wouldn’t have happened”, says Woodmansey.
“The marquis has been helpful and is very pro-business. He is a strong believer of independent businesses and was keen to maintain a retail presence in the Corn Exchange building.”
Woodmansey and Knowles’ company has taken a lease on the building and grants concessions to dealers for the shop units inside.
The full refurbishment and fit-out has been extensive and the cost of security alone is £50,000. The full venue was finally completed in the summer once the space being used by Kent Council was vacated.
Alongside the support from the landlord, other landowners in the area have worked with the team.
The antiques festival went ahead with support from the local council and the landlord of nearby The Upper Pantiles, Targetfollow.
The Pantiles Arcade also has a wider team ensuring day to day business runs smoothly, with photographer David Bartholomew and staff working on administration, accounting, packing and research. Dealers also sell online via ScottishAntiques.com or their own platforms.
There are further units to let and the team is in talks with potential dealers to join.
Knowles adds: “It is really collegiate in terms of how we work and who comes in. We like dealing with nice people. We also think about how a new person will complement what we already have.”